Mexico allows broadcasts in indigenous languages following reform of the Telecommunications law

By Teresa Mioli and Silvia Higuera

Starting June 2, broadcasters in Mexico may legally transmit information in any of the native languages of the country that are recognized as national languages, including indigenous languages.

As published in the Official Gazette of the Federation, the country’s Congress sent a decree to President Enrique Peña Nieto that amends a paragraph concerning the languages permitted in broadcasting.

The first paragraph of Article 230 of the Federal Law for Telecommunications and Radio Broadcasting was amended to say: “In their broadcasts, stations of concessionaires may use any of the national languages in accordance with the applicable laws. Concessions for indigenous social use may use the language of the indigenous people concerned.”

The original paragraph, passed with the new Telecommunications Law in 2014, said that stations “must use the national language (idioma),” but included the allowance for stations designated for indigenous social use. “Language” was in the singular and could be interpreted to mean Spanish.

The path to amend the law started after indigenous poet and journalist Mardonio Carballo won a case before Mexico’s Supreme Court in January 2016 which said the article was unconstitutional.

Carballo, who works in Spanish and náhuatl, maintained that the article in the 2014 law was “totally discriminatory,” taking into account that the country had approved the General Law for Linguistic Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2003, which recognized indigenous languages and Spanish as national languages.

“That is, in Mexico, there is no national language, several national languages are spoken,” Carballo explained to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas during a conversation this past April, before the amendment was passed by the Senate.

According to the National Institute of Indigenous Languages in Mexico, there are 68 lingustic groups in the country corresponding to different indigenous peoples. Each of these groups has various linguistic variants.

So, Carballo began to “fight against the article.” The first thing that he did was to file a complaint of unconstitutionality, which initially was rejected. After filing an application for review, his case reached the Supreme Court of the country in January 2016 and the article was declared unconstitutional.

But, while the decision of the Court  set a good legal precedent for someone who felt that their rights were being violated, it only applied to Carballo as an individual, he explained; it did not change the law in any way.

Following Carballo's victory before the court, Rep. José Clemente Castañeda presented an initiative before the Mexican Congress to change the language in the law.

Both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate eventually approved a change in the wording.

When interviewed by the Knight Center after the Chamber of Deputies’ approval but before that of the Senate, Carballo said it was an “important achievement,” especially because issues about indigenous people, media and the legislature were not discussed much in the country.

“It is a social achievement,” Carballo said. “It is an effort that is absolutely social. The Lower Chamber and Higher Chamber have taken it as a kind of joint struggle; I think that in reality, all they are doing is to compensate for their own mistake."

For this journalist, who said he is one of the few indigenous communicators who managed to have a presence in the commercial mass media in the country, the important thing now is to ensure that these media are interested not only in transmitting indigenous content, but to do so in these languages.

“We put in a lot of work to place indigenous issues in the mass media. So when there is a law that, to my mind, turns back progress, you have to face it,” Carballo said. “The next step is to leave community radios, we have to think about how to put indigenous content in indigenous languages in the mass media…What has to happen is to change directions a little and to assume that the world is much bigger and that we have the right and that we don’t have any legal impediments to create content, to offer it and to find a way for that to happen in Mexican indigenous languages.”

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.